Cuban gold medals validate sports psychologist’s theories

When sports psychologist Susan Butt gave a keynote address at the
30th annual Sports Medicine Congress last month in Havana, she discovered
that her research is an integral part of what is arguably the world’s
most successful Olympic program — Cuba’s.

Butt, an associate professor in the University of British Columbia’s
Psychology Dept., has long advocated that reinforcing feelings of
competence and co-operation in athletes is a better motivator than
promoting aggression and competition. This not only improves the
psychological well-being of athletes, but enhances their performance
as well, she argues.

Although the message often falls on deaf ears in North America,
the Cubans have eagerly adopted her approach.

A relatively small and impoverished island nation (that does, however,
have a 98 per cent literacy rate), Cuba won 25 medals, nine of them
gold, at the summer Olympics in Atlanta. That put them ninth overall
in the medals standings, ahead of larger and richer countries like
Britain, Japan and Canada. And on a per capita basis, it gave them
more medals than anyone else in the world.

All the more remarkable in a program that downplays aggression
and competitiveness, the Cuban’s best results are in the “fighting”
sports of boxing, wrestling, fencing and judo. In boxing, especially,
the Cubans are a world power, winning seven Olympic medals, four
of them gold.

“I’m not vain enough to think that their success is all due to
the application of my theories,” Butt says, “but they’re doing everything
right for these athletes, so it’s no surprise to me that they’ve
done so well.”

Butt’s theories had their genesis on the clay and grass courts
of the world’s premier tennis tournaments. In her late teens and
early 20s, she was on the professional tennis circuit as Canada’s
number one ranked women’s player. What she saw convinced her there
were serious problems in competitive sport.

While some degree of aggression and competition is highly desirable
in an athlete, Butt feels they receive far too much emphasis.

“If an athlete is to have the greatest chance of fulfilling their
potential, they are best served by feelings of co-operation and
competence. In North America, many coaches would like to see their
athletes be more aggressive and competitive, and I’ve long argued
against that,” she says.

Butt says her theories are often misunderstood: “I’m not against
having a contest, but there are better ways of approaching competition,”
she says. “We often waste our elite athletes. We throw them into
the dustbin when their careers are over.”

The Cubans, in contrast, build a family-style atmosphere within
their sports programs. Loyalty and trust are emphasized and athletes
maintain good relations with the team years after they have finished
their careers, she says.